Taliban, Islamic State arm themselves with weapons US left behind
A Taliban fighter wearing US clothing and US weapons looks through a captured night vision device. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
The weapons and military equipment left behind by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, including through the collapse of the Afghan army, are now largely in the hands of the Taliban - and probably other militant groups as well. While the reactions of many politicians and observers have been sensational, it highlights the significant problems posed by US arms transfers during the two-decade war on terror.
Despite U.S. and international efforts to control the proliferation of military equipment, the U.S. has a long history of gun abandonment and questionable arms transfers. As a result, US weapons ended up in enemy arsenals in Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, even before the US withdrew completely.
As a result of both abandonment and poor persecution, the Islamic State Group, Taliban and other militant groups managed to get US-supplied anti-tank weapons, tanks, drones and a large number of small arms such as rifles and light weapons such as machine guns and base missiles .
This equipment was later often used against US forces or their allies and sometimes recovered after battles.
Arms proliferation in Afghanistan
For years, the Taliban have been procuring US weapons, relying on corrupt Afghan officials and troops to sell US equipment, loot weapons in combat or steal them during raids. The sudden collapse of the Afghan army made for a uniquely great stroke of luck.
A truck full of soldiers drives down a street
Much of the more advanced weapons and equipment may prove unsuitable for the Taliban because they are too complex or require special maintenance - or were damaged or destroyed by US forces before they left.
However, easier-to-use high-tech devices such as communication instruments and night vision devices will help the Taliban. Some of this equipment has already been used by the elite Badri 313 unit to guard important locations such as Kabul Airport.
The Taliban could also share their weapons with other militant groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda. These groups are already threatening the security of people across the region.
Arms transfers failed, safety precautions ignored
Several US government programs aim to prevent weapons from reaching opponents. Regardless of whether they go through the Department of Defense or the Department of State, they rely on what is known as "end-use monitoring".
These efforts are designed to ensure that other nations' armed forces, when given U.S. arms, are kept safe both during transit and after they arrive at their destination. U.S. officials are expected to help recipients obtain and store the weapons or equipment and distribute them to soldiers or other authorized personnel. These officials are also expected to carefully document which weapons are handed over to which foreign forces, and track them over time to ensure they are kept safe - and fix any problems that arise or even stop the transfer of weapons.
Soldiers stand near a helicopter
But evidence shows that many arms transfers to foreign partners in support of the war on terrorism failed to meet these basic end-use safeguards. In one case, it took US officials in Afghanistan 15 months from 2007 to set up the required tracking system for weapons and equipment delivered to the Afghan army. During this time, some devices, including night vision systems, were lost - presumably to the Taliban.
In another case, a 2007 Government Accountability Office report found that the military and other government officials in Iraq were ignorant of where massive amounts of small arms, light weapons and equipment had gone. They were supposed to have been turned over to the Iraqi army, but with untrained staff and poor distribution networks, no one knew if something was actually delivered - or if it was stolen or lost somewhere along the way.
Despite military promises to do better, the problem persists. Audits and investigations by the US government have shown that security processes were not complied with in the case of drone transfers to the Afghan military and countless arms transfers to the Iraqi military and other forces involved in the fight against the Islamic State Group in Iraq and Syria.
If the right procedures had been followed, they could at least have reduced the number of US-supplied weapons in the hands of the country's enemies.
Additional protective measures could also help. Even before they agree to arms transfers, US officials are asked to consider whether their foreign partners can guarantee that the weapons will not end up in enemy hands. However, political pressure for quick results in violent situations and competing strategic priorities often result in weapons being given to groups that cannot reliably secure them.
By failing to follow existing accountability and security procedures, the US has contributed to the groups and conflicts that sought to suppress its arms transfers.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Nolan Fahrenkopf, University at Albany, State University of New York.
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Nolan Fahrenkopf is a research fellow at the University at Albany's Center for Policy Research, which receives non-proliferation-related scholarships from the U.S. Department of State.
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